Summer Camps Are Now Using Minecraft To Make Kids Fall In Love With Science

The YMCA's Camp Combe is one of the most popular and best-known sleepaway camps in the New York Area. Serving over five hundred children a day during the summer months, the facility keeps its guests both busy and entertained with a whole host of activities including swimming, archery, high rope courses, nature walks, and...Minecraft? No, I'm not kidding.

An hour outside of New York City, New York, a group of third-to-fifth graders this week dove into the camp's first ever Minecraft session. Of course, as creatively-oriented as the base game is, it doesn't really teach kids all that much as far as practical knowledge is concerned. That's why Camp Combe is using an educational variant of the title: MinecraftEdu.

Deveoped by TeacherGaming, MinecraftEdu is a modified version of the base game whose sole purpose is to get its players interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. After logging in to MinecraftEdu, players are first taught the basics of the vanilla Minecraft experience - logging into a server, controlling their avatars, manipulating the environment, acceptable get the idea. Once they've been schooled in how to play, they're then given an objective; this task could be anything from building a bridge to creating a functional particle accelerator. 

Naturally, the more complicated tasks will be reserved for later. 

In each case, the objective handed down to the players is designed to foster teamwork, help them develop a number of real-life skills and ultimately link back to the scientific method. 

According to Camp Combe director Thad Gifford-Smith, the biggest accomplishment of this program is that it's teaching kids what he refers to as "digital discipline" - something which is in horrendously short supply these days.

"Every parent who's got a kid who's addicted to some kind of video game knows what it's like to try and get their attention," he explained to Polygon. "We wanted to be able to help kids to develop the skills to move fluidly from a virtual environment to the real world without irritating the people around them." Initially, Gifford-Smith was skeptical of the program and of its capacity to teach.

In order to see what all the fuss was about, he decided to spend some time playing with his son. 

I looked over his shoulder a few times and thought to myself, this really is a creative piece of software," said Gifford-Smith. "It's different. It's not World of Warcraft and it's not Mortal Kombat." Once he'd gotten it into his mind to support a camp for MinecraftEdu - and once he'd vetted that idea with his peers - he found driving attendance to be surprisingly easy. Evidently, kids will jump at the chance to play video games. Who knew, right? 

"When we first brought up this idea we thought we were going to have to spend a lot of time educating parents," he noted. "We've had to do very little of that. They either realized that Minecraft was the lesser of several evils, or they had already recognized that Minecraft was a different kind of game."

Although it's met with great success, the program isn't without its problems. One of the greatest challenges, continued Gifford-Smith, has been finding staff suitable for running the camp. One solution he and his co-workers found was to promote several campers to act as instructors. 

"It's hard to find an adult that's really good at MinecraftEdu who is also good at working with kids," he says. "We bring in a couple of middle-schoolers who are really good at Minecraft and they act as junior teachers. They get community service, they feel good about helping out and they learn some good techniques for working with kids. They know the program far better than we do because they spend hours on it." 

Camp Combe is far from the only summer camp engaging in this unique new teaching initiative. According to TeacherGaming, there are at least fifty organizations around the United States offering similar camps at somewhere around one hundred different facilities. In short, gaming's brought about a new paradigm in education which has made teaching easier than ever before, so long as one's using the right tools. 

"Games act sort of as a medium to get kids' attention," said Santeri Kovisto, CEO of TeacherGaming. "Older organizations like the YMCA struggle to find ways to get kids excited about learning. They have a mission. It can be a mission from 30 years ago to make good citizens. It's still a valid thing to do, but the effective tools are very different today."